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Car reviews - Hyundai - Santa Fe - GLS V6 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, creature comforts, V6 engine
Room for improvement
Automatic transmission, handling, refinement

19 Apr 2001

BUSINESS is booming at this end of the four-wheel drive market as people turn away from small sedans and wagons for a bit more excitement, or scale down from larger off-roaders to a more suitable vehicle for everyday needs.

Everybody wants to get into the act - car manufacturers and consumers alike - and now that Hyundai has entered the fray, the landscape will never be the same.

Despite the fact it looks like a caricature of the modern SUV with its over-enthusiastic body sculpting, Santa Fe will not only pinch sales from all quarters, it will grow the market further with its enticing size, specifications and features.

By no means the cheapest soft-roader on the market, the vehicle is loaded down with big-ticket items that make it impossible to ignore.

That 2.7-litre V6 is an attractive proposition, as is the offering of full-time four-wheel drive, automatic transmission with Tiptronic-style operation, a CD player, air-conditioning, cruise control, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, a trio of power sockets, rear foglights, roof rails, alloy wheels and an airbag.

Not for the first time with this marque, important safety equipment such as a passenger airbag, anti-locking braking system and rear disc brakes require a further dip into the purse.

The GLS model adds those items, plus a host of peripherals: cowhide on the steering wheel rim and gearshift knob, front fogs, driver's seat lumbar adjustment, lit ignition switch, door steplamps and body coloured bits and bobs on the exterior.

Sold? For a lot of people, that will be enough. A drive around the block will reveal a strong and willing engine, lightweight steering, an acceptable ride, a high seating position, the promise of adventure.

But a drive toward the nearest state forest, and in one, will also reveal the Santa Fe's shortcomings.

Developing 132kW at 6000rpm and torque of 247Nm at 4000rpm, the 2.7-litre engine does its level best to overcome the hefty 1700kg-plus kerb weight and a decidedly tall set of gears on the standard four-speed automatic transmission.

The engine has lots of enthusiasm, and while getting noisy as the needle hits the top of the speedo arc, remains smooth throughout the process.

The transmission is forced to work hard most of the time, often plunging down into first gear from third, or into second from fourth, with even a light stab on the accelerator.

Switching across to the manual shift selection mode - a simple case of pushing the gearlever to the left and then pushing forward or back to swap cogs - will stop the transmission hunting for the appropriate gear, but flogging the engine to keep things on the boil will wear thin long before the first refuel.

Once you get to that point, you?ll also notice the V6 has a thirst for petrol.

And so to the handling characteristics, which while competent for the most part, particularly in terms of roadholding thanks to the 16-inch tyres and full-time four-wheel drive, is blighted by a dearth of steering feedback and response to input.

There is also vibration through the steering column and the occasional niggle at the wheel when the front tyres meet undulations during a corner.

The steering kickback and rattle is exacerbated on dirt roads, where presumably the car will spend some of its time.

It is these conditions where gravel ping in the wheel arches comes to the fore, along with suspension noise and vibration through the steering wheel and seats over rough patches. Combine that with an unsavoury amount of wind noise when travelling on the tarmac (even at suburban speeds) and it becomes apparent that refinement might not have been high on the list of mechanical priorities.

The ride is a better aspect of the driving experience, proving comfortable and well controlled for the most part. Dust sealing is good, too.

Off the beaten track, the Santa Fe is as ill equipped to go deep into the bush as most vehicles in this segment. The V6 provides enough grunt for steep country however the absence of ultra-low crawling gears can soon start causing problems.

Low gears can only be held for as long as the Sportmatic semi-automatic allows, and that can be disconcerting when nearing 6000rpm and the top of a very steep hill. Going down, moreover, is worse - engine braking is not a strongpoint, and as speed starts escalating down a steep slope, so too do the heart-rate and the tacho needle, particularly when brake lock-ups are an ever-present danger on the base GL model.

For what it is worth, the ground clearance is a good 207mm, approach/departure angles a reasonable 28 and 26 degrees respectively and the viscous-coupled four-wheel drive system, while easily caught out, proves effective in mild conditions. Underbody protection is basic, at best.

In sheer size and interior accommodation, the Santa Fe is at the pointy end of this class. There's good seat comfort and visibility for the driver, great HVAC controls, a transmission indicator in the instrument cluster and the welcome sight of cruise control (not a given here) with buttons mounted on the steering wheel.

Like the exterior, the dash presentation is big, blocky and chunky - not to everyone's taste but not bland either.

Storage spots, cupholders and power outlets are plentiful and two rear seat passengers of average size will find an acceptable amount of room in all directions. The centre-rear spot, while featuring a head restraint, has a lap belt only and doubles as an armrest.

The seatback angle on the 60/40 split rear seat can be adjusted, while each portion (including the squab) folds to increase load space. Doing so does not create a flat floor and it is not the easiest or tidiest of operations, but at least it's there.

The boot space itself is large for this class and easily accessed via the refreshingly light and conventional tailgate (the full size spare is underneath the vehicle) or a fussy two-stage opening mechanism for the rear glass.

And the trio of child seat anchorage points won't, when in use, impinge on either luggage space or visibility.

From the coffee table, from the showroom floor, from a five-minute drive, the Santa Fe looks too good to be true - and as is the case with much of the product from this part of the world, the truth is that it is competent up to a point and excellent value.

For most people, that is exactly what they are looking for.

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